How to be a freelance journalist: what I have learned and top tips from the experts
It’s been nearly a year since I took the big step to go freelance. And, though I probably shouldn’t admit this to the world and thus to any potential employers out there (hiyaz!), I’ve found the transition from being a staffer and section editor to being a self-employed journalist quite challenging.
At times, I'm fancy free, skipping out to lunchtime meetings, wrapping myself up in a blanket in front of my laptop, and eating an entire pack of biscuits in fifteen minutes. At others, I've felt like a bunny bounding into a sea of piranhas, copy shredded to bits and my soft, furry self esteem ripped into, one piece at a time.
But don't let that put you off. Mostly, freelancing is like a never-ending sandwich of awesome, filled with a variety of different people, publications and opportunities. The fact that it's tough makes you – or should make you – hungrier. And if you're lucky, and don't use laboured metaphors like this, then you might get some extra hot sauce at the end of it.
And so, to celebrate my first freelance birthday, I’ve written a(n exhaustive) guide to what you should know about freelancing – and what I wish I'd known earlier – with a little help from some journalists who really know what they're talking about.
Hopefully there’s something in here for everyone, from students to staffers, and from the more obvious points worth reiterating to the stuff that no one warns you about in journo school.
Something missing? Have more tips to contribute? Please do leave your comments below. I'll most definitely be updating this as the year goes on.
Develop a rhino-thick skin.
You’re no longer a staffer. Therefore, you don’t have a safety net of colleagues to tell you “good job!” or to bounce ideas around with. Nor do you have the convenience of being able to yammer an idea at your editor over the water cooler. And you certainly don’t have any interns to transcribe your interviews for you. The wisest thing you can do is to be hard. Not rude-hard, just rock-hard. Because, if you’re starting out and pitching ideas, editors often don’t reply. Even if you’ve established a relationship with and have been writing for them for years, they don’t reply. Editors often don’t reply, so be politely, gently persistent. Email them once a week with ‘little lovely reminders’. And if they eventually do reply and they don’t like your idea, don’t take it to heart or be dissuaded. Just fire off another, better idea. When you’re a freelance, your confidence can easily take a tumble, but try not to let it. No one and nothing should be able to wobble you. You are GREAT.
Pretend that it's a real job.
"I always tell new freelancers, or people who are entering the freelance world after working in a proper job, to wear shoes when they're working from home," says Peter Robinson, a freelance music writer and the main man behind Popjustice. "Not slippers. The sort of shoe you would go to the office in. It might seem like one of the benefits of working from home is that you can sit around in your pyjamas and spend half the day wanking, but if you don't treat your work seriously and structure your day properly you're not going to get as far as you could do, or should do. You're basically running a small business with one employee and while you might think this means you're the boss, in fact you're the workforce. So wear shoes and get dressed properly, don't have the TV on (Homes Under The Hammer is not 'research'), and start as early as possible because you'll get most of your best work done before lunchtime. On the last point, that means also try and schedule meetings for the afternoon. But the shoes is the main point."
Be clever about money stuff.
What’s that, I hear you scoff? £200 to pay a man with a briefcase to tot up my income on a calculator and put it in the post to HRMC? YES, FREELANCERS, YES. If, like me, your counting and division skills only extend to splitting the dinner bill, then…
Number one: Find a bloody accountant. Get one outside London, too, as they are cheaper. For more information, this article on IdeasTap is useful.
Number two: Organise your invoices. Sure, that seems easy enough, but when invoices go missing, or they haven’t been paid, you’ll be really glad that you numbered them ‘KH2013-3’ or ‘KH2013–HereGoesTheMagazineTitle1’.
Number three: Get friendly with the accounts departments at your relevant publications for when you inevitably need to chase missing payments. Nagging your editors for missing moolah is LONG. Go straight to the source and sort it out, patiently, over the phone.
Establish a fee as early as possible.
This is the most important money point, as without it, one, two and three above are irrelevant. Some magazines have agreed word rates that are the same for everybody; others, the more old-school kind, may buy a feature from you where you have set the price. Don’t agree to writing a juicy-looking article and then realise, when it comes to invoice time that your 1000-word piece amounts to £15. Don’t be afraid to agree this all upfront and in advance. Simply ask, “What’s your rate?” and if you think it’s too low, negotiate. If you’re being asked what your fee is, the unwritten rule, is: don’t be a knobber about it. If you’ve been approached to write a 500-word blog post for a small fashion blog, and you want to do it, don’t demand to be paid silly money. They'll think you're a chancer and won't ask you again. For a better idea, see the NUJ's extensive, if a little outdated, guide to rates.
Be funny. REALLY FUNNY. (And erase clichés from your brain.)
By that, I don’t mean that you should aspire to be the next Charlie Brooker or Caitlin Moran. I mean that a LOL will get you a long way. I’ve nicked this point from ex-Stool Pigeon editor Phil Hebblethwaite’s crucial article for Huck, ‘Counsel for the Young Indie Publisher’, but it goes for freelance writers as well. The more and more I edit freelancers' copy, the more I think, dammit, WHERE ARE THE GAGS, MAN? And, WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S A ‘SOPHOMORE ALBUM’? And I don't mean just putting the odd line in CAPs or making a reference to 'The Lulz'. If you’re going to stand out from the swathes of other writers writing about the same stuff then at least make yours entertaining and cut the clichéd, nonsensical crap. (The most entertaining stuff I've had the pleasured of editing lately is by Sarah Dempster, who makes me laugh so hard a bit of wee comes out).
Of course, it differs from media outlet to media outlet: some like copy that reads as if robots wrote it; others insist that your articles must be unlike anything you can find elsewhere. Still, I always find that a clever little gag – and not a hint of an overused word or phrase (see my favourite guide, by The Stool Pigeon's Alex Denney, on what exactly to avoid) – will give you at least a bit of an edge. On fearsome deadlines, we are all a little guilty of banging out the same old easy phrases (mine: "DJ Dan D whips up a dubstep storm!"), but do make some extra time to splice them all out at the end, which leads me neatly onto…
Prepare to churn out LOADS (and get another job)…
When you’re freelance, there’s no luxuriating over features for weeks on end. It’s not in your job description. If you’re going to make your rent, you must be FAB (fast, accurate, brilliant) at all times and turn out a dizzying amount of copy to make your rent. (A side note on the accuracy: if you're no longer a staffer, you can't just slyly go into an article online and edit out the mistakes quickly and easily. Ensure the copy you send to your editors is, above all, accurate. There's nowt more embarrassing – and I've done this very recently – than having to trot up to your editor when they're really busy to ask them who to ask to change something online, and then finding that person and trotting up to them to sheepishly ask whether they can change the 'a' to an 'e' in someone's surname because you got it wrong. It's the first rule you learn in journalism and often the one that's first forgotten.) Most freelancers couple this with a SOJ (shit other job), which they never tell anyone about. Last year I travelled two hours on the tube to a copywriting job every week, where I would write staff quizzes and web banner advert copy (ie five words) all day. It was handsomely paid, but it was as unsexy as a Lakeland catalogue. Find as many of these as you can to survive. For more on this, read this great piece by David Hepworth for In Publishing.
…but remember that it's OK to say no.
Josh Jones, whose list of freelance jobs is almost longer than this blog post, has some wise words on how to juggle everything. "Freelancing is pretty much feast or famine. Sometimes it'll be quiet, sometimes it'll be mental busy and all the work will come in at the same time with deadlines leaving you bewildered," he says. "But people will understand that as a freelancer you're going to have other things on. No, actually, even previously reasonable people will appear to presume that you just sit idly waiting for them specifically to call. Learn to deal with them. Take on as many things as you're comfortable with, you're a freelancer, you're going to have to work through the night sometimes and you need the money, but once you're close to drowning don't be scared to turn down work. Tell them you can't, that you're too busy already doing things. Tell them you're so busy you couldn't possibly give it 100% focus, and you'd hate to deliver anything below your very high standards. That seems to work. Please don't say 'Of course I can do something', when you really mean you've got a window at 3am on a Sunday. Once you start giving ground like that, you'll start doing stuff for free. And doing that is a walk down Twat's Alley. And make sure you shower when you wake up."
Stick to the rules and finish the job.
Justin Quirk, a freelance journalist and editor of Soho House Group's House magazine, has a priceless pearls to share on this point. “It seems obvious, but it is still ignored by far too many freelancers," he says. "If you’re given a deadline and – just as importantly – a word count and a format to file your work in, stick to it. If you’ve been asked to write in running copy, don’t suddenly turn it into a Q&A without checking first. Likewise, if you’ve been asked for 400 words, don’t file 600 words – apart from the fact that you’re essentially telling me that I can spend the time chopping your work down for you, more than likely I’ll edit it in a way that you’re not happy with. And on a similar point, don’t file work which is overlong and tell your editor ‘I'm too close to the material, can you give it a chop for me?’ Essentially, you’re saying that you can’t be bothered, and that you think your time is more important than your editor’s. This won’t endear you to anyone.” Sticking to your deadline – particularly tricky for freelancers, when you’ve been called in for desk cover at the last minute, also goes without saying.
Take house style to bed like a lover.
This can be particularly tricky if you write for a number of publications, but it's important to know their house style inside out. Some editors don't particularly care, but it's better not to take the risk. “Be familiar with the house style by looking at previous issues,” says Justin. “If they always put album/book/film titles capped up, don’t file your copy with them written in inverted commas. Going through copy deleting inverted commas makes your editor want to kill themselves.” Not to mention: “If you include all the fiddly details that are easier for you to find than for the editor to find (release date of the album your writing about, name of the label that it’s on, contact details for the PR for images, etc) your editor will love you," he continues. "All this information is probably sat on a press release in your inbox anyway, and it makes the process much smoother when your editor has 20 pieces of copy arriving on the same deadline day, which all need this information adding to them.”
Be an expert and know how to do everything…
Emma Warren, a senior editorial mentor at Live Magazine, freelance journalist, radio documentary maker and lecturer, has a lot of authority on this. Just look at that job title. She says: “Freelancers now need to be extremely flexible. There are no staff jobs and even freelance journalism has fundamentally changed. Getting enough work requires a broad swathe of skills: freelancers now should know how to create simple bits of audio and film, as well as being able to write good copy. Most importantly, you need to know how to use SEO and social networks to make the most of your content. Being expert is equally important. You need a niche, and you need to know your niche inside out.”
…but also be a specialist.
Eamonn Forde, a freelance entertainment writer and tech guru, knows a thing or two about – cliché alert! – carving a journalistic niche, too. “Have one thing that you know inside out and be on closer terms with it than you are with your own family,” he says. “‘Generalists’ might seem like they have a blast. But they don’t. They are pitching the same ideas as a thousand other people at the same time, staying up all night chewing the bed sheets with fear and anxiety about where the next job is coming from. Specialists are the tortoises of the freelance game. And they’ll be the post-apocalypse cockroaches. They’re TortRoaches. Be a TortRoach.” With that in mind…
SHOW PITCHING WHO IS BOSS.
Speaking as someone who often pitches ignorable ideas with unoriginal angles, this is something that you really need to sparkle at to succeed. If you don’t, roll that turd in glitter FAST. Your ideas are your hand grenades, your Beyoncé thighs, your bread and butter – and you need lots of them, constantly. Chris Parkin, a freelance writer and Red Bull UK’s music commissioning editor, adds: “If you think of an idea, flesh it out and fling it at commissioning editors as soon as possible or it’ll languish on a to-do list for weeks and months until you delete it in a fug of low self-esteem.” Just make sure that those ideas are unique. Chances are if Queen Bey has a new album coming out, it will have already been thrown into the features pit for the staffers to wrestle over. The only way you are going to get to write about something is if A: They haven’t heard of it and it sounds interesting; or B: Your angle is too irresistible to ignore and you have access your editor could never have dreamed of.
“Try to think like an editor,” suggests Ben Walters, who writes about film for the Guardian and Sight & Sound, and edits Time Out’s cabaret section. “Spend a bit of time thinking about what will be useful to them – what kind of holes are they looking to fill? There’s no point pitching a 1,500-word think piece if their only freelance budget is for 250-word reviews. The best way to find out what an editor wants is to wangle a bit of face time – offer to take them for a coffee. Near their office, naturally.” And if you are going to go for coffee, think of it like an interview and be prepared to answer questions about what you like about the publication and what you'd change. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you will be asked.
And another thing, says Andy Welch, a freelance music writer and Press Association's Music Editor: "Most difficult is when you're trying to arrange an interview that relies on having a commission in the first place. It's the freelancer's chicken and egg. Who do you speak to first? Speak to the publication and make sure they're interested in the piece, first of all ie "If I can get it, would you be up for…". Then speak to the PR and make sure the interview can happen if you get the time. It's important to be honest with everyone, to keep all parties in the loop and whatever you do, don't promise something you can't deliver. There's no shame in an interview not happening. Getting a reputation as a lying fantasist who said they had an exclusive with an A-lister is another thing entirely."
Here is the best – and more detailed – guide to pitching that I have found so far. Make this your bestie and your pitching will get SEXY very quickly.
Find a mentor.
Freelancing can be a lonely old business and sometimes it can be hard to know if you’re pushing in the right direction. A mentor is one of the best ways you can learn, improve and make important connections in any given industry. Even the best writers should have one. I’m very lucky to have a mentor who doesn’t mind me emailing them at silly o’clock if I’ve got an article that could do with a brutal opinion before I fire it off to an editor, or if I’m in need of advice about word rates. Their no-BS wisdom has been priceless. At a time when so many people are self-serving and unhelpful, it’s important for the good guys to stick together and buy each other dinner to say thank you. I’m probably going to get my mentor to look at this paragraph before I publish this – just in case. (NB: Though there are a few official routes to find a mentor, if you email a journalist whose work you admire, tell them so, and ask them for their advice and/or direction, the good ones will be flattered and most likely eager to help).
Steal like a cunning, light-footed magpie.
Another point cribbed from Phil’s guide to publishing is to get well clevs at stealing. Deftly pickpocket ideas and model them into something new. I am NOT saying directly lift from anyone’s work, or even your own – you do not want a Johann Hari situation on your hands. I’m saying that if you see an article with an interesting format, file it away and use it as a template for a different feature, on another subject, at a later date. Basically, if you read something and think DARN IT, I WISH I’D THOUGHT OF THAT, keep it in your memory box and squeeze your mind grapes for it another time. That, by the way, is a phrase I nicked off my mate Oli, who originally stole it from the TV show 30 Rock. Because it’s funny.
Write absolutely everything down.
Joe Muggs, freelance music writer and broadcaster, always has a pen in his hand. “You will always be juggling multiple commissions, plus almost certainly working at least one other part-time job to make ends meet,” he says. “The simple fact of remembering all the things you have to do each day is mentally exhausting. So write down everything there is to write down, from ‘phone Jay-Z 4pm sharp’ to ‘buy paperclips’. Write it several times and, crucially, where you can see it. iPhone time management apps are all very well, but nothing takes the place of a wall of Post-It notes or whiteboard in your office where you can see at a glance what is outstanding. A burgeoning "to do" list staring you in the face can look daunting, but trust me it's infinitely better than a blurry one stored in your already overloaded brain.”
Facebook and Twitter are not your IRL friends.
My good friend Ross, who is a lovable control freak and A Total Boss at his job, always says to me: never put anything negative on social networks; always project the image of doing it Like A Boss (I'm paraphrasing, but still). While I like to ask the odd journo question on Facebook and canvass opinion, he’s got a good point. Recently, on Twitter, I saw a young journalist declaring his outrage because a certain newspaper wouldn’t take his pitch. It’s doubtful he’ll ever get work from them again – or from any editors that may have caught his outburst. Certainly not from me. Your social networks are your shop windows. Decorate them nicely with exciting things to look at. Secondly – something I am also guilty of – do not use social networks in place of an IRL office. I miss jabbering away about ridiculous celebrity stories or the latest BuzzFeeds to my old desk companions, but tweeting every two seconds into the abyss will not fill that colleague-shaped hole. It’ll just piss people off.
Don’t forget to listen…
Pay attention to this shiny nugget from Stevie Chick, music writer, editor and lecturer. “When interviewing, the best thing you could do – other than cook up the most cracking questions you could imagine – is LISTEN to what the interviewee is saying,” he says. “You’ll have all sorts of other nonsense on your mind, like what’s the next question you're gonna ask, are you gonna have the nerve to ask the offensive question you’re saving for last, is the press agent about to sneak in and tell me my 15-minute interview slot is about to come to a close? But don’t let those factors distract you from listening to what your subject is saying. If you don’t listen, you can’t react to their answers – to follow them to their conclusions, to tackle the further questions those answers might throw up, to question contradictions and possible falsehoods, to make sure they make sense. Because if, during the interview, you miss some clue to a more interesting topic of discussion, or let the subject get away with a woolly or nonsensical answer, or don’t follow up a clanger or a gaffe or an unwise admission they might drop, you will want to kick yourself pretty damn hard when you catch yourself doing so while transcribing the interview tape. And transcribing’s agonising enough without wanting to kick yourself as well.”
…and know how to make the most of those quotes.
For some interviews, especially if you get longer than usual and cover lots of ground, you may well be able to whirl them into different features for different publications. I've always wondered how to do this well, and Stevie has some suggestions on how to manage this professionally.
"One of the benefits of being a freelancer is the ability to turn one interview into a series of different features you can sell to a variety of outlets," he says. "But how to do this without alienating any of those outlets? Well, the best approach, I feel, is to be as open about this as possible: if you have only gotten access to an artist because you are representing a certain title, then you must at least check with that title (and perhaps the artist) before selling the interview material to other parties. They might object, and given some of the more heinous copyright contracts freelancers are more and more likely to be expected to sign by the outlets they contribute to, they might have legal backing to do so. Even if not, you should consider whether selling on this material against the commissioning title's wishes might damage your ability to score such commissions in the future.
"If your editor is reasonable enough to let you sell the interview on, then I think you owe it to them to give them the choicest quotes. For the other pieces you write from the interview, I'd advise against duplicating exact quotes between pieces, for obvious reasons. I find it best to offer the further pieces to titles that aren't in competition with each other, better still to titles that aren't even in the same market or aimed at the same audience. Not only is there less chance of editorial conflict between such titles, it makes it easier to write new and different pieces from the same interview, as different titles will be looking for different types of story and appealing to different types of reader. I interviewed Alicia Keys in 2001 for an NME new artist feature that focused upon her from a musical standpoint, using interview material about her background in soul and hip-hop, but the Evening Standard piece I spun off from the interview focused instead on a more 'human interest' angle, with Alicia reflecting upon her album going to #1 overnight and how she was dealing with it all. Different titles with different readers will, hopefully, be interested in different portions of your interview."
Make a decent website.
As well as Twitter and Facebook, a personal website is the market stall on which you lay your wares. Make it shiny. It's a wonderful opportunity to put across Brand You and, via the blog bit, show off your real writing, what your real thoughts are and what people might be able to purchase from you, without anyone cutting out sentences because they're "too Vice". For everyone else, write how they want you to write – but for yourself, you can do it how you like. So do it. I used Square Space to do this website, which, I think, is (the king of) the nuts.
And last but not least: JUST BE NICE.
Music journalist and broadcaster Jude Rogers is a certified Champion of Niceness. "If an editor doesn't get back to you, never be snappy about it – they've probably been horribly busy (and if they haven't, being short about it won't help you get more work!)," she says. "If someone has added a mistake at the sub-editing process, don't go apeshit at them – email them firmly, but nicely, to tell them what's happened. And always be friendly in emails at all times... people always appreciate it. Do unto others, dear freelancers, as you would have others do to you."